Sunday, February 5, 2017

Triton by Samuel R. Delany

This post contains major spoilers. 

Triton, sometimes titled Trouble on Triton,  by Samuel R. Delany  is an odd book by any measure. First published in 1976, this is reread for me. A Google search finds that this book is still talked about a lot. Some consider this a science-fiction classic. Others find it enigmatic and frustrating.  After this reading, I understand both reactions. 

The novel’s main character is Bron Helstrom. Bron is a recent immigrant to the human settlement on Triton. Neptune’s moon is one of many moons within the solar system that has been colonized. The protagonist becomes enamored with a brilliant street theater producer known as the Spike. Much of the book concerns itself with Bron’s interactions with the Spike, friends and work associates. Toward the end of the book, an interstellar war between the solar system’s moons on one side, and Earth and Mars on the other, heats up. The results are destructive, bloody and tragic. At the same time, Bron’s relationship with the Spike disintegrates, leading Bron to take some radical actions. 

Delany’s writing style is unusual. The book falls firmly within the definition of postmodernist literature. The descriptions of objects and people are dense, colorful and, at times, bizarre. 

At one point, a street performance directed by the Spike  is described, 

“Windy, on a large contraption like a rodent’s exercise wheel, bells fixed on his wrists and ankles, rotated head down, head up, head down: A target was painted around his belly button, rings of red, blue, and yellow extending far as circling nipples and knees. The guitar started. As though it were a signal, two men began unrolling an immense carpet across the ground— another mural: This one of some ancient fair with archaic costumes, barkers, and revelers. Verbal disorientation, he thought, listening to the surreal catalogue of the lyrics: The melody was minor, this time rhythmic, more chant than song. “

As the subject of this story is a society that exists more than a hundred years into the future, the weird nature of his imagery makes sense to me. 

There are also numerous references to art, literature, music and philosophy. These references are sometimes obvious, but at other times obscure. There is a heavy bias toward postmodern philosophy and art.  They often tie into the book’s themes. At one point, a calculus formula is included in the text. There are also many references to science, particularly to physics and biology. At times, this becomes extremely technical.  The book includes several appendages that further elaborate on the philosophy and technical aspects of the story.  There is a lot of humor in the book. The absurdity of Bron’s character flaws as well as humanity is poked at. However, there are no stream of consciousness passages that are typical of the Post Modernist style.

The prose also includes a striking number of parentheses. In fact, the author uses more parentheses than any other author that I have ever read.

The early chapters are fairly light on plot. They include a lot of character development, philosophy and prose filled with symbolism and thematic elements.

The later chapters include a horrible escalation of the interplanetary war. They also include Bron making the absurd decision to become a woman and having his sexual preference reoriented from a heterosexual man to that of a heterosexual woman. This decision has nothing to do with the often-cited, twenty-first century motivation of being a woman stuck in a male’s body. His reasoning is irrational and ludicrous. 

There are many things going on in this book. First, Delany is trying to portray what he believes is a better society than our own. He and others have described it as a utopia. In fact, the author has stated that after reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, he revised his draft of this book to present an alternate version of a utopia. I should note that neither this work nor Le Guin’s portrays a utopia as I understand the term. Instead, these works propose societies that their respective author’s believe to be an improvement upon our own.

The world of Triton is strongly libertarian leaning. This is manifested in many ways. People get to choose different options in life. Some enter associations where they pay high taxes and receive a lot of public services. Others pay little taxes and receive little government services. There is an enormous array of family structures and sexual preferences. There are communes of heterosexuals, gays, bisexuals and asexual individuals as well as mixed groups. Monogamous relationships exist, but they are the exception. People are able to change gender, sexual preference and physical characteristics almost at will. Many take advantage of this ability to metamorphose, but many do not. Delany foresaw medical advances that have brought about the current day ability for people to undergo gender reassignment surgery relatively routinely. In this area, he seems prescient. 

Likewise, religion and spiritualty are characterized by profusion of beliefs in this hypothetical society. Sects based on spirituality are everywhere on the colonized moons. These groups range from the benign to the destructive. Diverse belief systems and philosophy abound. 

Much of the philosophy related in the book seems to champion a level of thinking that transcends standardized logic. This is a complex work, and this set of ideas is both advocated and criticized. Bron’s profession is a metalogician, which, as per the story, is the study of ways of deducing truth that goes beyond formalized logic. 

There is a strong feminist theme in this book. At one point, Bron decides that he is the kind of man who is a protector of society. In his own mind, he links this tendency to being insensitive and uncaring to others, particularly women. Furthermore, he expresses his frustration that most women are unable to appreciate this virtue in men. At one point he ponders,

“real men (because there’s no other way to have it; that’s part of what I know), really deserve more than second-class membership in the species . . .” Bron sighed. “And the species is dying out.” “I also know that that kind of man can’t be happy with an ordinary woman, the kind that’s around today..”

The ridiculousness of these views is highlighted when Bron’s friend Lawrence reminds him of the outrageousness of his claims and that the kind of brave men that Bron is championing just killed billions of people in an interplanetary war. 

These ideas are further developed when Bron decides to transform into a woman. He does so because he believes that there needs to be more of the kind of woman described above. The results of his transformation are, predictably, not good. 

There are many other philosophical and thematic threads to this story. There is also a lot more going on with the characters. I have only scratched the surface above. 

This is a challenging book. The writing style makes it a little difficult. Though full of ideas, they are presented in enigmatic ways. Some of the philosophy, science and other aspects of the story are impossible to decipher. In interviews, Delany has said that some of it is indeed intentionally baffling nonsense. Bron is an unlikable character who does all sorts of bad things. Sometimes, he causes harm to others. He is amazingly self-centered and self-deceptive. He is an unreliable narrator. 


There is so much going on in this book. Its style is strange but creative. It is an effective and unique character study of a narcissistic personality. With that, this novel is not for everyone. It is difficult, and many of Delany’s ideas about society and people are debatable. However, this novel of ideas is not afraid to present and examine all kinds of beliefs. Reading it is like taking a trip through an intellectual fun house. I recommend this book to adventurous readers. 

33 comments:

Guy Savage said...

I hadn't heard of this, Brian, but then I don't really read much of this genre.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I think a lot of people have not heard of this. This book kind of fits into a subgenre so I never had mass appeal.

Sharon Henning said...

What a unusual story. I can think of so many things to comment on and I hate to oversimplify my observation with a glib comment but I think it is a book that deserves more of my attention.

It seems to hold in common many sci fi books that I read in my youth where an author seems to believe that he can improve on society. "Life would be better if we had this sort of norm." Assuming that is what he's saying. You seem to think so?

I can't fathom some of these writers, although it does seem like a lot of them think they are smarter than the average bear in rearranging societal norms.

You have certainly succeeded in making me want to read it.

Suko said...

Hmm... I hadn't heard of this author or book before. The book sounds unique and fascinating in some ways. Excellent commentary and intro to this book.

baili said...

I really appreciate the way you shared the summery of this incredible book which i became fan while reading this fabulous post of your's .
in past i heard about people in west and east who decided to change their sex but how difficult it could be emotionally or socially is mystery for others and hopefully this book talks about it in detail.

when i read the author's ideas about woman it compel me to read it .
Hope i can find it here sometime.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - There is a lot going on in this book and thus there is a lot to say about it.

I think society has improved and can improve going forward. I agree that trying to push change though based upon theory or too fast is a bad idea, If someone tried to initiate social change based on one of these books or one of these theorists, the result would not be good. Also, too much central planning has shown itself to a bad idea.

With all that, I think it is a good thing that writers play with these ideas in a fictional context. I think that doing so lets us examine all sorts of issues in unique ways.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - Delany was very ahead of his time when in regards to gender reassignment. With that, the motives of the protagonist are unrelated to the reasons that people choose this course in out day.

I agree, Delany's take on gender here is fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

It seems that many have not heard about this book.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Long ago I read something by Delany; of course, I have no recollection now about the title or the story. In any case, I enjoyed reading your review, and perhaps I can track this one down at the library. My reading of S/F is limited, but I think I will try this one. Thanks for the posting.

James said...

As you know, I read a lot of science fiction. I have read some Delany but not this novel. However, as a novel of ideas it sounds like my kind of book. Thanks for reading and sharing your interesting thoughts about this challenging book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - As of late my science fiction reading had also been limited. I wanted to read something in the science fiction genre that was a little different.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I would love to know what you thought of this. It is different.

Tracy Terry said...

Not a fan of this genre to begin with, I'm further put off with your comment that the writing style makes it a little difficult. Something I could perhaps cope with if it was a genre/author I was into but otherwise I think this is definitely not one for me.

I am however interested to know if Mr T has heard of/read the book/author and if so what his thoughts are.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - As noted. I would only recamend this one to the hardcore- interested.

Stefanie said...

I have yet to get around to reading Delaney. i really must make an effort to fix that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - I would love to know what you think about his works. His writing is so different from the norm.

thecuecard said...

Oh my, this seems like a hodgepodge of way too much! I googled the author and I see that he is still alive and writing ... likely about sci-fi societies. I see that Bron is an unlikable but how about the Spike? Is there anyone redeemable in the novel? thx. (and also thx for the movie on the White Rose group; I will look for it.)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The novel has a moral basis and many of the characters are ethical including the Spike. Unfortunately her character is a bit vague underdeveloped. There are tantalizing hints that there is a lot going on with her.

Hodgepodge is a good word. There is a lot going on here and it is disorderly.

Delany is still alive and seems to be still active.

Brian Joseph said...

P.S. - I still have not seen The White Rose Film either. Hopefully soon.

Lory said...

I like your description of the book as an "intellectual fun house"! I enjoy how science fiction and fantasy allow us to play out different scenarios for our lives and relationships. I think those kinds of stories help to keep us flexible and open to new possibilities.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - I agree. The science fiction genre gives writers the opportunities to do things that they cannot do with other genres.

The Reader's Tales said...

Dear Brian, I've never heard of this book, usually I don't really read this type of story. As you say it right - this is a challenging book. The writing style makes it a little difficult...
Having said that, I wish you a fabulous Valentine's Day ahead :-) See you next Wednesday.

Brian Joseph said...

Without a doubt this book is not for everyone.

Have a great Valentine's Day!

Mudpuddle said...

i read some early Delaney: Einstein Intersection, Jewels of Aptor, but he lost me in Dhalgren, which i thought was rather mannered and stodgy... i liked his earlier work, though... this sounds overly complicated for my under- enhanced brain...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - I have not read any other of Delany's works. But I would like to now.

Dhalagren is talked about a lot. I am suprised as to your description of it.

This is a complicated book.

Caroline said...

I somehow think I would love the themes and ideas but struggle with the book as a whole.
I like the idea of different taxes for different needs. We have a similar system in place for our health insurance.
I don't think thus might be the best novel for someone like me who hasn't read Delany yet.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- In the end it is a challenge book. There is a payoff, but is it is limited.

This is actually the only Delany book that I have read.

seraillon said...

I don't read a lot of science fiction, but years ago someone raved to me about Dahlgren, and so I've had Delaney on my radar ever since, and so am glad to hear a bit about him. I'm not much a fan of those SciFi novels that dwell in speculative politics or that seem to be selling a particular political point of view, and this sounds like it might be such a work. But the "funhouse" elements sound like they might balance that out.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - I have also heard a lot about Dahlgren. I've heard that it was long. I might give it a try some day.

This book does get into politics. Not current politics but on a universal level. The politics get into the mix of a lot of other things and are sometimes presented in a bizarre way. Hence the intellectual fun house.

HKatz said...

Great analysis.

What you quote of Bron sounds exactly like some male Internet commenters I've come across...

I might read this one, as I like books that try to balance between strange/challenging and completely baffling.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila.

Indeed, that sort of thinking is somewhat common in some online quarters.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Maria Behar said...

EXCELLENT commentary as usual, Brian!! I greatly enjoyed reading this review!!

From what you've stated here, this novel represents something of a dilemma to me. While I do think that it would be an intellectually challenging read for me, and thus, entirely fascinating, the character of Bron as you've described him does give me pause. I don't like or enjoy reading novels in which the main characters are unlikable. I particularly abhor narcissistic personalities.

I'm also uncomfortable with all the various sexual pairing arrangements you've mentioned as part of the plot, with monogamous relationships being the exception, rather than the rule. Here's where my conservative side kicks in, I'm afraid....lol.

I do like that the novel has a strong feminist flavor. In light of this, the quote you've presented, which is one of Bron's musings, seems strangely out of place. And the fact that he wants to transform himself into what actually appears to be a misogynistic woman is really puzzling!

Another element of this novel that gives me pause is the fact that the style seems to actually be rather bizarre, and that Delany even included "intentionally baffling nonsense". I must confess that bizarre, nearly incomprehensible prose is a characteristic of Post Modern literature that I totally dislike. It's the main reason I haven't read "Ulysses", for instance. And I find it very insulting to readers that Delany would purposely include irrational elements in his novel.

Having said all of the above, my sense of adventure as a reader might very well win the upper hand here, lol. I do enjoy reading books that are not common reading fare, from time to time. And I would like to get back to reading books with more intellectual topics. I'm still in the throes of my Young Adult Fiction obsession, and need to get back to my earlier obsessions -- adult fantasy and science fiction!

Thanks for your very insightful analysis of this novel, Brian!! Hope you have a GREAT week!! :) :) :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Bron is a pretty bad guy. His terrible attitude towards women is meant to be rejected by the reader. Other characters even tell him this.

This book is so strange that it is hard to recommend it unless one is committed.

Have a great week!